The Ninth in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
Ezra has been sent to Jerusalem by Artaxerxes, the Persian king, on a fact finding mission. Ezra has been given everything he needs by the king to successfully fulfill his mission. But Ezra is also a priest who descended from Aaron, and a man skilled in the law of Moses. Ezra was well-known for his zeal for and expertise in those commandments which YHWH gave to Israel through Moses. Ezra must walk the difficult line between fulfilling his mission for Artaxerses–reporting back to the king the status of the Jews in Jerusalem–while at the same time becoming the de-facto spiritual leader of the Jews. It is not long after his return to Jerusalem that Ezra becomes aware of Israel’s shocking indifference to the law of Moses, and accordingly, calls the nation to repentance. The Persians desire that the Jews and their pagan neighbors, the people of the land, live in peace with one another. Yet as a Jew and someone zealous for the law of Moses, Ezra knows that if the Jews become too close to their pagan neighbors, it might just be the Jews’ undoing as a people.
Ezra has been in the Jerusalem area about four months, when he is informed that a long-standing threat to Israel’s existence as YHWH’s covenant people has once again reared its ugly head. Failing to learn the painful lesson taught them by YHWH–many of the Jews were exiled from the land of Canaan for seventy years because of the people’s disobedience to their covenant with YHWH–Ezra is told that the Jews have not completely separated themselves from the people of the land, and are, in fact, intermarrying with them. As someone skilled in the Law of Moses, Ezra knows how serious this offense is. New of this sends him into a time of deep mourning and repentance–the theme of our sermon this time.
It was about this same time that God sent the prophet Malachi, who likewise called the Jews to repentance because of the same reason–a number of Jewish men were marrying pagan women (Canaanites). Some of the Jewish men were even divorcing their wives in order marry pagans! In chapter 2:10-16, the prophet laments,
Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts! And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
The record of Israel’s history in this regard has not been good. Marital infidelity became a powerful metaphor for Israel’s spiritual condition–YHWH’s chosen people began seeking other gods. It was Israel’s failure to drive out all the Canaanites when they first entered the land of promise during the days of Joshua, which led to the terrible days depicted in the Book of Judges, followed by YHWH directing the Assyrians to defeat the northern kingdom (Israel) in 722 BC, before Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and took a large of Jews into exile to Babylon in 586 BC.
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